Saturday, February 26, 2005

The end is nigh?...

Talk about global English and everyone starts saying the same thing: it's taking over the world. Some people will be happy with that; some won't. We could, if we chose, spend several happy hours looking at examples, and considering the relevant relationships - contested or otherwise -between language, social prestige, economic power, migration, and political and cultural colonialism.

But hold up, what's this? Maybe the rise of English isn't inexorable after all! Maybe English has reached its global glittering peak, and the only way is down. Well, so speculates Nicholas Ostler in his book, Empires of the Word: a language history of the world.

In the review of the book linked below, a number of key factors are cited to support the potential demise of English. Firstly, the traditionally dominant countries in which English is used have aging populations. Think about it - who wants to talk like a bunch of old people?! So, the language loses its social prestige and goes into a zimmer-framed decline. People start choosing the language of the regions with the vibrant energy of a youthful population. China and the Far East is where it's at, folks. Ah yes, you say, but what about business and the internet as bastions of English communication, supported by all the economic power of the USA (and Britain, its 51st state). Well, yes, at the moment, but again, where are the fastest growing economies? What is true now may not be true tomorrow, and Ostler notes that businessmen are notoriously fickle - they go where the money is. I'd start learning Chinese now, if I were you.

What makes Ostler's speculations compelling is that he places them in the context of the history of the world and its languages. He considers the factors that have led languages and empires to rise and fall; he's looking at the big picture here, not giving us some knee-jerk reaction. Check out the review - this is a useful alternative perspective in the global English debate.

Watch your tongue


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